I was watching a bit of the Olympics and happened upon the medal ceremonies for some event or another. As I watched, I thought about the athletes who never get a gold medal despite all the blood, sweat and tears they put into their efforts to achieve some sort of greatness. It was a very small leap to then think about all the musicians in the world whose lives take a similar path. Then there are those who dream of achieving such greatness but who never get beyond the dream. In a world where winning is everything and more often than not, the only thing, Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues” deals with the losers, the people who don’t have and never will have a “gold medal” moment in their lives. It about those who dream but never do.
Among music nerds who value the Apollonian instead of the Dionysian, the group Steely Dan has always been the bees’ knees and on their sixth studio album, Aja, they created their most fully-realized collection of songs. By this time Steely Dan had transformed from a recording and touring band into the songwriting partnership of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Utilizing a ever changing slew of top session players, they had become obsessive sonic perfectionists, scrutinizing every overdub until every note was perfectly in place. While such a pursuit of perfection could lead to a cold stiff performance, that is not the case here. As it’s noted in the video clip below, the goal of the musicians was to play “past the perfection point until it became natural”.
In an album of amazing songs, I always had a particular soft spot for “Deacon Blues“. The protagonist dreams of leaving his suburban life for the fantasy of the bohemian life of a jazz musician. He doesn’t see himself as one of “winners in the world”. Instead he aspires to (in the words of Walter Becker) “one of those mythic forms of loserdom “, one deserving of a nickname as grandiose as one given to a college football team. For all his dreams, you are left doubting that he will ever “cross that fine line” but you also get the feeling that his creators, Fagen and Becker, are rooting for him.
Below are two fascinating videos about the song. The first one is from a great series of video essays called Nerdwriter . The video discusses elements that make the song (and Steely Dan’s music in general) so distinctive, from the recording methods that provide such sonic detail to every instrument, to their use of register and voicings in their horn arrangements, to their use of something they call the “mu major chord” (for the real serious music geeks out there, check out http://www.hakwright.co.uk/steelydan/mu-major.html for more info on the mu major chord).
NerdWriter – How Steely Dan Composes A Song
The video below is from the Classic Album series on the making of Aja and features Fagen and Becker going through the individual instrument parts. Very cool!
Classic Albums: Steely Dan’s Aja – Deacon Blues
For more deep analysis of Deacon Blues and Aja, check out the the Aja edition of the book series 33 1/3 (https://www.amazon.com/Steely-Dans-Aja-Don-Breithaupt-ebook/dp/B00LGSQ432/ref=dp_kinw_strp_1)